A recent SchoolBook article on the high teacher turnover at one of Eva Moskowitz’s Harlem Success Schools raises an important question in the debate over improving urban schools — how can we stop corporate education reform’s focus on “getting rid of bad teachers” from creating a level of instability in school staffing that hurts our city’s students?
The case of turnover in the Harlem Success schools is only the latest example of this issue, but it’s a striking one. Over a third of the teachers at Harlem Success 3 have chosen to leave the school in the past few months, a decision Moskowitz describes as “frankly, unethical.” At the same time, however, Moskowitz chooses to employ her staff with a policy of “at will employment” rather than a negotiated contract. Under this model, she and her principals have the right to terminate teachers’ service at the school at any time, for any reason. In fact, Steven Brill’s Class Warfare describes the case of one new teacher who was “forced out” only a few months into the school year when a young principal at Harlem Success decided she wasn’t a “good fit” for the school.
The deep irony here is that in this view of “ethical” teacher turnover, Moskowitz and her staff believe that they should have sole control over determining whether a teacher is a good fit for the school — but in the article, teachers’ stated reasons for voluntarily leaving seem thoughtful and professional:
One former Harlem Success Academy 3 teacher who quit at the end of last school year said she had left because she felt “micromanaged.” “You couldn’t teach in the way you wanted to teach,” she said. “If your kids weren’t sitting perfectly, looking straight at the teacher, not saying a single word, then you weren’t doing your job.” […]
In an interview, a former Harlem Success Academy 1 teacher who quit several months into last school year said it was a decision she made only after realizing there was an impassable gulf between how she wanted to run her classroom and the teaching and discipline methods her supervisor insisted on.
Others leave for more personal reasons — a point echoed in Brill’s book when the same young principal who fires the teacher early in the narrative later decides to quit Harlem Success herself in the middle of the school year (leaving for a job in the district), “citing issues related to her health and personal life. A month later, she used the word sustainable a dozen times in explaining her sudden decision to me — as in, ‘This wasn’t a sustainable life, in terms of my health and my marriage.’”
These stories capture one of the troubling contradictions behind some corporate education reformers’ belief that urban education can be fixed through firing more teachers — for example, the repeated mantra of researchers such as Eric Hanushek that if we could simply “replace the bottom 5-8 percent of our teachers with average teachers”, then student learning would skyrocket. In addition, charter leaders frequently brush off concerns about the fact that charters have been shown to have significantly higher teacher turnover than district schools, arguing that at will employment simply makes it easier for them to keep “the right people.”
In reality, the harsh test-score based models of teacher evaluation that Hanushek and many charter school leaders base their policies on are deeply alienating to exactly the good teachers we want to retain in our schools. As seen this year in Washington, D.C. and in Tennessee, poor implementation of teacher evaluation systems which are experienced by teachers as punitive instead of supportive of professional development don’t just result in the departure of individuals who those evaluation systems have determined to be “ineffective.” Instead, they consistently push out large numbers of effective educators who lose patience with the micromanaging and paperwork that interfere with their desire to teach their students in authentic and meaningful ways.
Research has shown that the loss of effective teachers who are swept up in the rush to fire our way to urban school reform is costly not only in terms of money, but also in terms of students’ learning experiences, including not only their performance on tests but also the critically important development of stable relationships with caring adults. Parents and students know this, which is why teacher turnover is one of the concerns we hear about most often from parents at charter schools. Eva Moskowitz and other charter operators (and authorizers) have a responsibility to listen to those concerns for the sake of their students.